The NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup will feature four fewer drivers after the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. Under the new format, championship contenders will get eliminated after every three races until the final four are left standing for the season finale.
As of now, the group currently outside the cutline includes Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola. Although those drivers are going to face the most pressure this weekend, the battle remains close, which will keep a lot of teams on edge until the checkered flag waves.
NASCAR calls this portion of the competition the Challenger Round, but the key word Sunday will be survival. Everybody is desperate to keep his Chase hopes alive. So let's check out all of the key race information along with some drivers to watch and make a prediction.
Where: Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware
When: Sunday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m. ET
Live Steam: WatchESPN
Radio: Motor Racing Network
|AAA 400 Starting Lineup|
|24||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||160.421|
|25||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||160.399|
|26||78||Martin Truex Jr.||160.142|
Drivers to Watch
With Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon—that's a lot of star power—all in contention for the championship, Kevin Harvick has flown below the radar. The outstanding qualifying season he's having makes him a serious threat, though.
Being able to start near the front on a consistent basis is key, especially under the new format. It keeps a driver out of danger in terms of the big wrecks that can ruin a Chase. Jeff Gluck of USA Today points out an interesting fact about his pole binge in 2014:
Now the question is whether Harvick can translate that into a victory at Dover. It's not a track where he's enjoyed a ton of success in the past. He doesn't have a win in 27 career starts at the track, with an average finish outside the top 15. This is a golden opportunity to reverse those trends.
As all racing fans know, this is usually the point in the season where Johnson normally starts to elevate his game. If he's going to win the championship, like he's done six times before, it's time for him to begin illustrating his dominance.
The new format, which features point resets at each stage, lessens the overall impact of the earlier Chase races as long as a driver advances. That said, it's still important to build some momentum. Bob Pockrass of Sporting News provided remarks from Johnson, who's happy he has margin for error.
"I can guarantee you when we get to the end of the race, if there is a call on two (new tires) versus four or fuel strategy, these guys from 12th on back are going to be very aggressive in that respect," he said. "I'm glad we're not looking for a Hail Mary to transfer to the next round."
In contrast to Harvick, Johnson excels at Dover. He's won there nine times in 25 starts while also scoring 18 top-10 finishes. So how well the 48 team runs Sunday should give a clear indication about its chances the rest of the way.
Hamlin is one of the drivers right on the borderline between being right back in the championship mix and getting eliminated. Qualifying third certainly helps and should give the team a little more flexibility to avoid taking too much risk, at least early on.
The strong starting position also provides a boost because Hamlin hasn't had much success at Dover. He has no victories in 17 attempts, with an average finish barely inside the top 20. That type of result this time around would put him in significant danger.
After five straight seasons in which he ended ninth or better in points, Hamlin finished 23rd last year, in part due to injury, and is now in danger of missing the first cut. He needs to rediscover a bit of the previous magic before it's too late.
All of the elimination races will be extremely difficult to predict, because the fringe teams are likely going to use some unusual tactics. Some of the other drivers will follow and others won't, which is going to make for plenty of drama Sunday.
Ultimately, amid the bedlam, look for Johnson to use his experience and success at the track to find a way to win in the end. It will be a confidence-building victory for a team that's remained in the hunt despite not finding top form quite yet.
Pick: Jimmie Johnson